April 27, 2013


Why I Let My Students Cheat On Their Game Theory Exam (Peter Nonacs,  04.24.2013, Popular Science)

[L]ast quarter I had an intriguing thought while preparing my Game Theory lectures. Tests are really just measures of how the Education Game is proceeding. Professors test to measure their success at teaching, and students take tests in order to get a good grade. Might these goals be maximized simultaneously? What if I let the students write their own rules for the test-taking game? Allow them to do everything we would normally call cheating?

A week before the test, I told my class that the Game Theory exam would be insanely hard--far harder than any that had established my rep as a hard prof. But as recompense, for this one time only, students could cheat. They could bring and use anything or anyone they liked, including animal behavior experts. (Richard Dawkins in town? Bring him!) They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other or call friends who'd taken the course before. They could offer me bribes. (I wouldn't take them, but neither would I report it to the dean.) Only violations of state or federal criminal law such as kidnapping my dog, blackmail, or threats of violence were out of bounds.

Gasps filled the room. The students sputtered. They fretted. This must be a joke. I couldn't possibly mean it. What, they asked, is the catch?

"None," I replied. "You are UCLA students. The brightest of the bright. Let's see what you can accomplish when you have no restrictions and the only thing that matters is getting the best answer possible."

They could surf the Web. They could talk to each other. They could offer me bribes.Once the shock wore off, they got sophisticated. In discussion section, they speculated, organized, and plotted. What would be the test's payoff matrix? Would cooperation be rewarded or counter-productive? Would a large group work better, or smaller subgroups with specified tasks? What about "scroungers" who didn't study but were planning to parasitize everyone else's hard work? How much reciprocity would be demanded in order to share benefits? Was the test going to play out like a dog-eat-dog Hunger Games? In short, the students spent the entire week living Game Theory. It transformed a class where many did not even speak to each other into a coherent whole focused on a single task--beating their crazy professor's nefarious scheme.

On the day of the hour-long test they faced a single question: "If evolution through natural selection is a game, what are the players, teams, rules, objectives, and outcomes?" One student immediately ran to the chalkboard, and she began to organize the outputs for each question section. The class divided tasks. They debated. They worked on hypotheses. Weak ones were rejected, promising ones were developed. Supportive evidence was added. A schedule was established for writing the consensus answers. (I remained in the room, hoping someone would ask me for my answers, because I had several enigmatic clues to divulge. But nobody thought that far afield!) As the test progressed, the majority (whom I shall call the "Mob") decided to share one set of answers. Individuals within the Mob took turns writing paragraphs, and they all signed an author sheet to share the common grade. Three out of the 27 students opted out (I'll call them the "Lone Wolves"). Although the Wolves listened and contributed to discussions, they preferred their individual variants over the Mob's joint answer.

In the end, the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition. Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor.

What the rest of us learned is that what remains of evolution theory is entirely dependent on intelligent decision making.

On the other hand, what we should take away from this is the massive structural flaw it illustrates in our entire educational system.  We continue to teach and test as if every student were Robinson Crusoe or Jeremiah Johnson and would grow up to be completely isolated from any source of knowledge outside his own brain.  This has obviously been outdated for quite some time, but never more so than today, when the student's phone provides access to everything humankind knows.  A good education would prepare students to act as these did, to arrive at correct answers collaboratively.  

To see the truth of this we can offer a simple thought experiment: you suffer from a complicated medical condition.  You are offered two choices: (1) you can go to the most renowned physician in the field, Dr. Lone Wolf, graduated first in his class at Harvard, Chairman of the Department at the Mayo Clinic, blah, blah, blah, and he will make a decision about what is wrong with you and the course of treatment you will receive on the basis of his memory; or, (2), you can go to a team of recent graduates, the Mob, of a middling medical school who will base their decision on a review of current literature, consultations with other doctors, etc.  It ought not even be called a choice.

Posted by at April 27, 2013 3:49 PM

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